Presqu’ile, Part I: The Marsh Boardwalk

Northern Harrier

Presqu’ile Provincial Park on the north shore of Lake Ontario is one of the most outstanding natural areas on the lower Great Lakes and a premier destination for birders during migration. Over 200 bird species are recorded annually at Presqu’ile, and about 120 species are known to breed there. However, it is the regular appearance of vagrants – visiting species whose normal range does not typically include the park – which draws birders from across the province and elsewhere. In total, 333 species have been recorded in Presqu’ile, many of which are not seen every year. Some stray species which have shown up at Presqu’ile include Northern Gannet, Cattle Egret, Black Vulture, Townsend’s Solitaire, Blue Grosbeak, Prothonotary Warbler, and Gray Jay. A list of all the species recorded at Presqu’ile can be found here.

What makes this park such a magnet for birds is its shape and habitat. Migrating birds are reluctant to fly over open water on their journey; they often seek the shortest route across the Great Lakes, congregating in peninsulas such as Point Pelee, Rondeau Park, and Presqu’ile while waiting for a favourable wind. In crossing the lake from these peninsulas, they reduce the distance they have to travel over the water by a few kilometres. During the spring, when migrating north, these peninsulas are the first land that they see, and provide a place of refuge to rest and refuel after the lake crossing. Presqu’ile’s variety of habitats provide food and shelter for many different types of birds. The beaches attract a wide variety of shorebirds, the main reason why Deb and I decided to make the three-hour journey to this wonderful park.

We met well before dawn and watched the sun come up as we headed south on the highway. We arrived at the park at 9:00 a.m. and decided to stretch our legs on the newly renovated marsh boardwalk. A couple of juncos were feeding on the road as we drove into the parking lot.

Boardwalk Map

The first bird we saw upon entering the marsh was a Northern Harrier hunting. The white rump is diagnostic, as is the dihedral shape of its wings when it glides.

Northern Harrier

Deb and I went up to the viewing tower at the beginning of the trail, and saw a few distant ducks in a patch of open water. Although it was still a bit on the cool side – I was wearing my jacket – the sun’s rays were warm. The sky was a beautiful, clear blue, promising a wonderful summer-like day ahead.

Viewing Tower

The boardwalk was beautiful, although in some places there was hardly any water at all. As it was early in the morning, only a few insects had begun to stir; I was hoping to see some dragonflies during our trip, and saw only meadowhawks at first. I didn’t see any frogs or turtles, which surprised me.

Boardwalk

One viewing tower was built around a couple of willow trees. From the top of the tower we saw a pair of noisy ravens fly over the marsh, a Mute Swan in another open area of water, a Great Blue Heron, and a Common Yellowthroat playing hide-and-seek in the reeds directly below the tower. Several Blue Jays flew over the marsh, squawking nosily, and we heard a couple of Swamp Sparrows and a Marsh Wren singing.

A couple of teaching areas had been built into the boardwalk system as well; this is a view of one of them from the tower.

The Teaching Area

After descending from the tower, we crossed a wide channel of water where we found a Wood Duck half-hidden among the reeds. A couple of mallards were the only other ducks we identified.

The Marsh

On the other side of the teaching platform I came across my first interesting odonate of the day, a large mosaic darner flying in circles before landing on the edge of the boardwalk. Although I’d brought my net, I had left it in the car because it was still early and I wasn’t expecting to find anything interesting so soon.

Aeshna sp.

I took a couple of photos, even leaning out over the water to try and get a clear shot of the thorax. Even though the stripes are partially obscured by the wings, I could discern enough of the pattern to know that this wasn’t any of the common species I had seen before. However, the pattern was unlike any of the ones shown in my field guides, and neither Chris Lewis nor the good people at Bugguide.net could positively identify it.

Aeshna sp.

The trail left the marsh then and proceeded through a dark, grim stand of cedars. We found some Golden-crowned Kinglets singing high up in the trees, and two thrushes in the tangles around the edges. One I was able to identify as a Swainson’s Thrush; however, the other disappeared before we could get a good enough look at it.

The boardwalk at Presqu’ile is one of the best marsh boardwalks I have been to yet. The viewing towers provide a couple of different, broad views of the marsh, and the forested areas were a pleasant surprise as they provide habitat for non-marsh-dwelling species. It made for a pleasant start to the morning, and is definitely a place I’d love to visit in the summer.

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